Sturdy for the last few weeks, the Dodgers bullpen collapsed after 21-year-old rookie Caleb Ferguson could not complete the second inning in an 11-9 loss to Pittsburgh. A prodigious effort from Matt Kemp, who drove in five runs, could not offset Ferguson’s early combustion and the relief corps’ night-long unraveling.
Ferguson, a 38th-round pick in 2014, secured only five outs. Pittsburgh got to him for four runs. The brevity of his outing heaped responsibility for the rest of the night onto the bullpen, which issued seven walks and gave up seven runs.
The blame stretched across the unit. Daniel Hudson gave up two unearned runs. Brock Stewart gave up two earned. Scott Alexander and Yimi Garcia teamed to surrender three runs in the sixth inning. To add to the wreckage, Tony Cingrani exited after facing one batter after feeling pain in his left shoulder.
On an evening when the Dodgers demoted embattled reliever Pedro Baez to the minors, his fellow relievers built a tremendous case for why the Dodgers should have kept him around. He may not be gone for long, with Cingrani likely headed to the disabled list Thursday.
The double-digit mess obscured another explosive night at the plate by Kemp. He hit a two-run double in the second inning and a three-run home run in the fifth. Cody Bellinger hit a two-run home run. It was not enough.
“There’s only so much an offense can do,” manager Dave Roberts said.
On Wednesday, the team finally felt the weight of the injuries to the starting rotation. With Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill and Hyun-Jin Ryu on the disabled list, the team called up Ferguson to stanch the bleeding. Maeda will likely return this weekend at Dodger Stadium. But his right hip strain still forced the team to rustle up more organizational depth, which meant Ferguson pitched in the majors after making only 10 appearances above Class-A.
Ferguson grew up in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He intended to pitch at West Virginia. His path became rocky after he underwent elbow ligament-replacement surgery in high school. Unsure how to continue his career, he jumped at the chance to be a Dodger.
He started only four games in 2015, his first professional season. He rose to Class-A Great Lakes in 2016 and joined a rotation in Class-A Rancho Cucamonga with Walker Buehler and Dennis Santana. Buehler made only five appearances as a Quake; Ferguson spent the entire season there.
On Wednesday afternoon, Ferguson lounged on a couch in the PNC Park clubhouse with Santana. They stared at a television showing Cleveland playing Milwaukee. Preparing for his first big league start Thursday, Santana slipped into the training room. Ferguson fiddled with his phone as his debut drew closer.
Ferguson did not have to wait long for his first major league crisis. He built the fire himself. The bottom of the second inning began with Ferguson clipping outfielder Corey Dickerson with a 94-mph fastball. An inning earlier, Ferguson had started his career by plunking second baseman Josh Harrison with a curveball. He managed to avoid further damage. He was less fortunate in the second inning.
After Dickerson trotted to first base, Ferguson compounded the damage. He loaded the bases with two walks. Harrison hit a three-run double to left field. A walk by Ferguson for the next batter, outfielder Austin Meadows, brought Roberts out of the dugout. The manager took the baseball from the rookie and handed it to Hudson (1-2), who gave up a run-scoring single to outfielder Starling Marte that put the Dodgers down by four runs.
“I don’t know if he got behind so much as he couldn’t finish guys,” catcher Austin Barnes said. “Honestly, they put some good at-bats together in the second inning to stress him a little bit.”
The offense erased the deficit in the third inning. Two walks brought Kemp to the plate with two outs. Kemp hit a first-pitch fastball from starter Trevor Williams off the center-field wall for a two-run double. Bellinger topped Kemp by hitting a knee-high changeup into the right-field bleachers to tie the score 4-4.
The deadlock ended after three batters in the bottom of the third. With two runners aboard, third baseman Colin Moran hit a grounder to first baseman Max Muncy, who spun to throw to second base, hoping for a double play. His hopes were dashed when the ball bonked off the helmet of David Freese, who was running toward second.
Down four runs, the Dodgers turned to Kemp once more. Muncy and Justin Turner set the stage for Kemp again. Kemp deposited a 95-mph fastball from Steven Brault (5-1) into the Pirates bullpen in left-center field for a three-run home run.
Kemp had pulled the Dodgers within one run. They would advance no closer. Alexander allowed the first two batters he faced to reach in the sixth inning. Garcia surrendered a run-scoring single to shortstop Sean Rodriguez and a two-run double to outfielder Gregory Polanco. It was only the second time this season the Dodgers yielded double-digit runs to an opponent.
“The offense did what it could do,” Roberts said. “But tonight we just really didn’t pitch well.”